“I don’t care what you say anymore. This is my life.” ~Billy Joel
If I were to be critical of myself, I’d say that most of my life has been lived “on rails”, referring to video games that play out on a mostly predetermined track. In a lot of ways, it is sort of fitting because I have a really hard time focusing and maintaining my attention span on anything for more than a few minutes. I went to grade school, high school, college and grad school… wrapping all of that up the way I was “supposed to”. I got a job, meandered through a few more, and basically did what I needed to do to pay the rent, pay the bills, and buy junk that I thought I needed but barely even wanted. A lot of how I lived my life could be considered predictable. Spontaneity was never a strong suit of mine, to say the least. It’s no one’s fault, of course. No one needs to be blamed here. It just is. So, you could imagine my excitement when a plan to roam around the southwestern US for two weeks with my good bud, Colby Brown, hatched up only a few days before departing. On top of that, the agenda itself was almost entirely unformed. We were going to evolve it day by day. Clearly a departure from my typical MO.
The Grand and Overwhelming Canyon
Upon landing in Las Vegas and hustling to get the best deal we could on a rental car (another form of spontaneity for me—I always make my rental car reservations in advance), Colby and I beelined it to Grand Canyon National Park, about a 4.5 hour drive. We timed it so that we could catch the sunset, using it as a springboard for the motif of our trip. Fortunately, we made it to the South Rim, my fourth time here and, surprisingly, Colby’s first time (he has been to the North Rim), parking near Yavapai Point. From the car, it was an effortless single minute walk down a few stone stairs to the observation deck—a wide open platform with a metal guard rail about four feet high. Fortunately, it didn’t pose any sort of hinderance for our tripods.
You’d think that visiting this area three previous times would have made it easier for me to make sense of this natural wonder in terms of finding my compositions. In a lot of cases, you’d be right. However, the Grand Canyon is certainly an exception. There just is no getting using to how massive and intricate it is—two adjectives that don’t bode well for someone with a short attention span. For me, standing at this precipice, trying to make sense of what I’m seeing can be a challenge. It’s exceptionally overwhelming and, to top it off, there was a sense of urgency because the light was quickly starting to fade. It was this urgency that served as the impetus for this post. Instead of frenetically worrying about finding new places to stand to capture my photos, I would focus on capturing the intricacies and facets of the view in front of me solely within the six feet of standing room that I had at the edge of the observation deck.
Peace in the confine
To be honest, I didn’t think that imposing this restriction on myself would lead to anything substantial. However, I was pleasantly surprised! Once I absolved myself of the anxiety to find different locations to photograph from, I must have freed up some creative cycles in my brain and was able to simply enjoy looking for the little details. Sure, I used my wide angle lenses to capture the massive expanse in front of me but it was when I turned to my telephoto zoom lens that the real fun began. It was within those longer focal lengths that the real characters of the Grand Canyon showed themselves to me. If I’m being totally honest, it was so fulfilling that I could see myself only ever shooting it with long lenses, forgoing the need to fit it all into a single frame… unless I’m there during a total cloud inversion.
Taking Multiple Roads
Ultimately, each person who visits the Grand Canyon must take it upon themselves to make sense of it how they see fit. In my experience, it is a real treat to stare out and marvel at how gigantic this canyon is. It’s one of those things that you really need to see to fully appreciate. No photo can ever truly let you comprehend its grandeur—not nearly as effectively as when you’re standing there, right on the edge. Beyond that, though, I think it’s important not to neglect the finer, more overlooked, details within the canyon. It’s in there that you’ll find a dizzying array of layers, colors, and shapes and the fun challenge is trying to make sense of it all and find a way to capture it in your frame. Not only is the Grand Canyon a great place to learn about compositional theory, it also is a great place to test varying stylization methods. I hope everyone has the opportunity to take this challenge for themselves because learning how to make sense out of the Grand Canyon is surely a great lesson that will benefit you and the rest of your photography endeavors.